Excerpt: The Bastard Prince

One

Reyes scowled in annoyance at the flowers on his desk. They were, as always, exquisite. Roses this week; an enormous bouquet of them ranging in color from brilliant orange through blushing pink and fading finally to creamy yellow with a host of shades in between. Beautiful and arranged in a vase of delicate pale blue crystal.

He set his ledgers and portfolios down on his desk, ignoring the roses, and moved to open the drapes. The office flooded with weak, hazy light, bringing a little bit of life to the golden woods, the jeweled green and gold tones of the furnishings, the myriad colors in the costly woven rug.

A soft knock up on the door drew Reyes’ attention, and he turned to smile in greeting at the elderly woman who bustled in amidst a clatter of dishes and the smell of coffee, fresh bread, cinnamon and apples. “Good morning, Maggie.”

“Good morning, Master O’Bannon,” Maggie replied, steadfast in her refusal to lessen her formality even to ‘Master Reyes’. “Cook made cinnamon bread this morning, and I knew you’d be wanting that so I made sure there was extra on the plate. There’s also the apple spread to go with, and I kept that idiot Josh from making the coffee this morning.”

Reyes smiled again, adjusting the spectacles on his nose as he set a stack of envelopes and papers at his seat at the table. He squeezed her hand gently after she had set the tray down and fussed with it until satisfied. “Thank you, Maggie. Perfect, as always.”

She flushed, but only fussed with her apron then curtsied politely. “Enjoy your breakfast, Master O’Bannon. Call if you’ve need. G’day, now.”

“Good day, Maggie.”

When she had gone, he took up the coffee pot and poured himself a cup, sipping it as he began to go through the early morning post. He frowned in concern as he read the first letter and reached out to tug on the green bell pull. A couple of minutes later, a young man appeared with barely a sound. He was dressed in the forest green uniform of the royal military, the stripes on his chest identifying him as a sergeant.

“Tell the Captain to come to me at his earliest convenience.”

“Yes, sir,” the soldier replied and left as quietly as he had arrived.

Setting the letter aside, Reyes moved on to the next, making a note of it in his portfolio before setting it aside in a separate pile. Then it was on to the next, and he worked steadily through the mound of correspondence.

About halfway through the stack, he paused to refill his cup and pour a second one. To the second one, he added cream then set it before the empty chair across the table from his own.

Returning to the letters, he opened one bearing the moon and cross sigil of the Southern Monastery; it was rare to receive correspondence from that little corner of the kingdom. Reading the letter, Reyes’ eyebrows immediately shot up in surprise then swiftly drew together in concern. Picking up the first letter, which bore the marks of the Northern Treasury, he compared the two.

Heset them both to the side and reached out toward the bell pulls once more, this time ringing the green, followed by the gray. A couple of minutes later, the young soldier appeared again, as silently as ever. Seconds later, another young man entered, dressed in the pale gray robes of an acolyte.

“Tell the Captain I need to see him at once,” Reyes told the soldier. To the priest, he said,” Tell his Grace I request his immediate presence.”

“Yes, sir,” the men chorused and turned to depart—only to stumble to a frantic halt and tumble over in hasty, clumsy bows. “Good Morning, your Majesty.”

“Good morning,” the king greeted sleepily, patting them absently on the shoulder, trying and failing to stifle a yawn. He sat down as the two men finally departed and smiled. “Good morning, Reyes.”

“Good morning, Sire,” Reyes replied and handed him the two letters of concern. “Two attacks in completely different parts of the country, but remarkably similar. Two groups of bandits, ten to twelve in number, attacked the Northern Treasury and the Southern Monastery. In each case, the robbers were successfully routed, but the attacks showed careful planning and inside knowledge.”

The King frowned and quickly read through the letters, finishing his coffee quickly. Setting the cup aside, he read through the letters a second time, then a third.

Reyes quietly prepared him a fresh cup of coffee, and then prepared two more, one made black, the other with cream and sugar. These he put at two of the four remaining seats. There was a brisk knock upon the door just as he finished.

It opened to admit two older men, both in their early forties. The first was dressed in brown breeches and boots and a handsomely cut, forest green jacket with the marks of Captain of the Guard upon his breast and forearms. His nut-brown hair was cut short and neat, only barely touched with silver, drawing attention to the sharp, clear color of his bright blue eyes. One hand rested with the ease of a lifetime upon the hilt of the sword at his hip, an emerald gleaming in its pommel.

Beside him was the High Priest, the mirror image of the Captain, save that his hair was a bit longer, less severely cut, and he was dressed in the flowing, pale gray robes of the priesthood. On his chest, over his heart, was stitched the moon and tri star crest of the royal priests. Directly opposite it was the runic sun and moon crest that designated his rank.

Twins, and extremely close; so close that their drastically different callings had not managed to tear them apart even the slightest. If anything, their relationship had helped to mend a long-standing breach between the military and the priests.

“Sit down, please,” Reyes said, motioning. “I apologize for bothering the both of you so early.”

“Never a bother, Majesty, Reyes,” the High Priest replied, smiling as he took his seat and took a sip of his black coffee. “Especially since you always have the best coffee in the palace. Alas, I can tell this is not a social visit. What is wrong?”

The King handed the letters to the captain. “Erices, Breit. We’ve trouble brewing, I think. Two attacks, exactly alike, completely opposite corners of the kingdom. These letters would have come with full urgency, save that each had no way of knowing his attack was a copy of the other. Only we would mark the similarities.”

Erices drank most of his sweet, cream-heavy coffee as he read quickly, but thoroughly. Finished, he handed them to his brother and said, “Two of our most fortified keeps. The attacks, if accurately described, have the feel of testing for weaknesses, feeling out an enemy.”

“I agree,” the king said.

“Yes,” Breit said, setting the letters down after he had read them. “To what purpose, however? Both attacks failed; I hope that works to our favor. The treasury and monastery have only the strength of their fortifications in common. Both were built by the same man, I believe.”

“I am more troubled by the fact they had inside help,” Erices said, sipping the rest of his coffee, nodding briefly in thanks as Reyes fixed his second cup. “The time of year is peculiar as well—we are only weeks away from Extended Night. Granted, more to the south they will not suffer it as extremely as we do here, but in the north it will be even worse. The robbers could not manage further attacks without at least three mages of respectable ability. Contracting them would bring an exorbitant price.”

Reyes nodded absently at this, though he had no real place in the conversation. He was the royal secretary, and no one present would take it amiss if he offered his opinion, but he preferred to remain silent, keep the coffee and food to hand, and make notes of everything while they talked.

He made careful note of the magic, adding his own to see it looked into; an eye was always kept on the unlicensed lots—more of an eye than anyone realized. If someone was attempting to coordinate an attack this time of year, they would require mages to provide vast quantities of light and heat. In two weeks time, Extended Night would fall, and they would not see true cycles of night and day again for three months. So deep into winter, mages were already completely occupied maintaining the heating amongst the cities and villages—one hundred alone maintained the royal palace, holding back temperatures that would freeze a man in the time it took to draw breath.

Such an operation, if the attacks continued—which was not an impossibility—would require several unlicensed mages or else several licensed mages acting without authority.

He refilled the king’s coffee and added cream, glancing surreptitiously at the men gathered around the table. Three of the most powerful mages in the world sat here, discussing matters of state and security with the calm most people showed for weather and fashion and balls.

The king, of course, had the most powerful special magic in the country—a very simple, straightforward ability to destroy things. Being so close to the king, Reyes was quite familiar with his ability to destroy anything from a book to a building with a mere thought and the proper amount of focus and energy.

The Horn twins were as notorious for their magical prowess as they were for being so similar in appearance and so different in manner. They had held royal licenses for nearly as long as they had worked in the palace. Both had high level mastery of elemental magic—especially the fire magic so crucial to survival in their brutally cold climate. Erices was also a healer, while Breit had carried his elemental skills to an even greater level that made him the best in the country.

“There is a chance, however thin and unlikely,” Breit said, “that this is not as bad as we are already preparing for it to be. Then again, Galand has been too quiet of late.”

“Agreed,” the king said. “I think we will keep this affair between us, and as quiet as possible, until we know better the exact nature of what we are or are not facing. Breit, you are departing soon to visit the monastery anyway, are you not?”

Breit nodded. “I was to leave tomorrow morning.”

The king smiled. “I think your brother feels in need of a break before Extended Night settles upon us and so has decided to accompany you. I am certain it will not look amiss if he wants to spend his time exploring and riding and otherwise being a terrible distraction to his brother, who is kind enough to indulge him and go about with him.”

The brothers smiled together, two slow, feral smiles that only hinted as to why one did so well as Captain of the Guard and the other had so quickly climbed the ranks to High Priest. “Yes, Majesty,” Erices replied. “If I may ask, though, who do you intend to send to investigate the Northern Treasury?”

For reply, the king only glanced over Reyes’ shoulder to the vibrant roses set on the corner of Reyes’ desk.

Realizing the direction of his gaze, Reyes rolled his eyes and barely stifled a groan. The king chuckled at his reaction and said, “It has been some time since my falcon has stretched his wings. He has been confined and restless since breaking his leg, and that is now well-healed. I think I will remove his jesses. Reyes, summon him, and I think we will need more coffee.”

Though he had already been aware of the need for more coffee, Reyes only murmured a quiet “yes, Sire” and reached out to tug on the blue bell pull. “Maggie,” he said when she promptly appeared. “More coffee, if you please, and see that someone fetches Lord Hess. Thank you.”

“Yes, sir. Majesty. Your lordships.” Maggie curtsied and was gone.

Erices smirked at Reyes. “Still being courted, Reyes? I was with the gatehouse guards this morning when Kinnaird returned from his weekly trip with those roses. He looked most pleased with himself.”

“I see,” Reyes said, refusing to react to the teasing. Why everyone found it amusing, instead of troubling, he did not know—even Kinnaird’s rather colorful family history did not excuse his behavior.

The men all laughed and smiled quietly, then subsided into the food and coffee Maggie brought and more general talk while they waited for Kinnaird to arrive.

A few minutes later the familiar, quick four knocks came at the door, and it opened to admit Lord Kinnaird Hess, eleventh Duke of Keyes. Like the roses, he was as exquisite as ever. His hair was a fascinating combination of distinct shades of gold, brown, and red. His eyes were a brilliant amber, razor sharp, and set in features that were just as severe but strangely beautiful for it.

It was little surprise, really, that his family possessed one of the rarest and most coveted magical abilities in the country; one important enough that eleven generations ago, the crown had bestowed upon his ancestors a duchy.

Most magic could be universally learned. In the harsh, cold climate in which they lived, every mage learned at least basic elemental magic and a little healing. There was, however, a small collection of ‘special’ magical abilities that were exclusive to the individual families that possessed them. In all the kingdom, there were nine families that possessed the ability to shift form. Of these, one family and one alone could transform into a creature with wings. It suited Kinnaird, naturally, that he could turn into a falcon.

“Your Majesty,” Kinnaird said, sweeping them an elegant bow. He was dressed in brown breeches, cream-colored clocked stockings with a rune-and-feather image, gold-buckled court shoes, and a handsome jacket of dark, tawny superfine that matched exactly every shade of his fascinating hair, further accented with touches of cream lace and tiny topazes. “Captain, Lord High Priest. Reyes, you are as breathtaking as ever. The roses hardly do you justice, I do apologize for them.”

Reyes rolled his eyes. “Good morning, your Grace. Thank you for the flowers. Would you care to join us?”

Chuckling, Kinnaird sat down in the chair next to Reyes and helped himself to coffee before Reyes could fix it for him—and he could not prepare it before hand because Kinnaird seemed to drink it a different way every single time. Reyes could not understand why Kinnaird always made a point of never letting Reyes assist or serve him; no doubt it was purely for purposes of vexation.

Sipping his own coffee, Reyes sat quietly while the others brought Kinnaird up to date on everything, and Erices handed him the letters.

Kinnaird grimaced as he finished, setting them aside after only one read-through. “These letters are simply terrible. No real details as to how the robbers attacked or what particularly causes them to think there was inside information. They do not discuss the robbers in detail at all, which would have saved us a great deal of time and speculation. There are all manner of details they should have noted and should have included—language, appearance, manner, weaponry, clothing, jewelry, methods of attack. I do not suppose they have at least bothered to keep one or two alive?”

Erices grunted. “The treasury will have kept a couple; they know the sorts of things such prisoners can reveal when properly persuaded. The monastery, however, does not really have anywhere to keep someone effectively confined. They would have killed them all rather than risk further trouble.”

Kinnaird looked at the letters in disgust. “I shall be off at once, then. Should anyone ask, I have decided to take myself off to my private hot springs for a few days. Care to join me there, my dear?” He asked Reyes.

“No, but thank you, your Grace.”

The king laughed. “Splendid. All parties are to keep me well informed. Send careful letters, of course.”

“Of course,” Breit repeated and stood up. “Shall we then, Eri? We’ve much to prepare if you are weary and must come with me. Majesty, thank you for breakfast.” Nodding, bowing, the brothers departed.

Standing up, eyes bright with mirth, mouth curved in a smirk, the king said, “I shall work in my office for a bit, I think. Reyes, come find me in an hour or so.” Then he was gone, the door to his inner office clicking shut quietly behind him.

Leaving Reyes alone with Kinnaird. “Should you not be going, your Grace?”

Kinnaird somehow had managed to move his chair closer without Reyes actually seeing him do it. “Did you like the roses?” he asked and reached out briefly to dust Reyes’ cheek with his knuckles.

Reyes jerked away, trying to ignore the warm touch, the way Kinnaird smelled like silk and peppermint oil. It was always so surprisingly cool a scent for a man of such warm colors, but the sharpness of it suited him. “The flowers are beautiful, your Grace. As always, I thank you. Also as always, I remind you that you should not be giving flowers to me, especially such costly ones, and especially when you are being pressured to marry.”

“I will give flowers where I choose, and marry when and where I choose. You forget, I am the king’s falcon, and I have his permission to press my suit where I like. My sister married well and has been blessed with five children. By the grace of sun and moon, three of them are daughters. My line does not want for heirs.”

“I am a secretary, and you are a Duke, and one of the oldest titles in the country. Press your suit elsewhere, your Grace, for I do, and shall continue to, refuse it.”

Kinnaird only smiled and drew back slightly. He shrugged one elegant shoulder and said, “If I were inclined to give up so easily, my dear, I would not be the king’s falcon. However, if you like, we can wait to continue this conversation upon my return. Rest assured, however, I shall not give up.”

Reyes nodded, even if he had no intention of continuing the conversation anytime. “Sun and moon shine upon your journey, your Grace.”

“Thank you.” Kinnaird stood up, and Reyes turned away, back to the work that had lain neglected while the meeting carried on. “Oh, just one more thing.”

“Hmm?” Reyes asked absently, half-turning in his seat and looking up—

To be met by Kinnaird’s mouth, warm and sudden and flavored of coffee and apples and cinnamon. Reyes pulled away, but far too late to hide the fact that, for a few seconds, he had responded to and returned the kiss.

“For luck,” Kinnaird said with a wink, backing well out of range of any swing Reyes might take. “Think happy thoughts to bring me home to you, should I become lost in the snow.” Reyes rolled his eyes at the folk tale reference. Kinnaird smiled and blew him a kiss from the doorway. “Sun and moon watch over you. Farewell.”

Reyes let out a frustrated breath, scrubbing at his lips to banish the taste and feel of Kinnaird, but the memories lingered in his mind, hot and bright. No amount of scrubbing would banish those.

Grimacing, he gathered up the post and abandoned the table in favor of his desk. Barely had the sun bells rung, signaling the formal start of day than he was inundated with people needing to see the king, needing appointments made, needing papers signed, projects approved, and crises solved.

He handled it all well, with all the skill and ability that had swiftly moved him from a mere palace general secretary to secondary secretary of the Marquis of White to the minor secretary of the king to the king’s primary secretary, and finally to the king’s only secretary, when the king decided that Reyes was all he needed and would tolerate.

When the mid-bells rang, Reyes told the guards outside the office to ban entrance for the next hour. Alone at last, the king still out riding with a couple of his favorite advisors, Reyes took a much needed break. Crossing the room, he pushed a hidden button that opened a secret door, which in turn led to a small room.

Closing the door firmly behind him and locking it, Reyes poured water from a blue china pitcher into the matching bowl. Then he held his hand over the water and willed it to heat. The surge of magic was warm as it raced through his blood, flushing his skin slightly. In the bowl, steam began to rise lazily from the water.

Relaxing his power, Reyes stripped off his jacket, shirt, and undershirt, hanging them on nearby hooks. Then he reached for the soap in a small china dish. It smelled faintly of lavender, and he breathed it in, reminded briefly of home, before picking up a washing rag and scrubbing himself down. Clean and dried, he felt much refreshed as he put his clothes back on.

He frowned at the drying towel then glanced up at his reflection in the looking glass above the wash basin. His hair was becoming intolerable, he thought, taking in the dark brown strands that lightened to dark gold at the tips. He would have to tend to it that night.

Setting the matter aside for the time being, he set down the drying towel and adjusted his clothing. He smoothed down the soft, dark blue velvet of his jacket, the silk of his silver and blue striped waistcoat, tweaking the crisp, white lace cuffs to fall just so. Finally he settled his silver-rimmed spectacles, attached by delicate chain to his waistcoat, on his nose.

He lingered a couple of minutes more, helplessly and pathetically drawn to his reflection, wondering what someone like the Duke saw in him, what made him claim he cared. If he—

Cutting the thought off, Reyes left the freshening up room and returned to his office proper, smiling when he saw that Maggie had already come and gone, leaving a fine lunch spread out on the table.

Sitting down, Reyes dug in with relish, carefully avoiding thinking about either work or Kinnaird.